Agents & Editors: Tanya McKinnon

Vivian Lee
From the March/April 2024 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Activism, service work, modeling the ways we can show up for one another in the publishing industry—these things come naturally to Tanya McKinnon, principal agent of McKinnon Literary. The list of vibrant, forward-thinking authors McKinnon represents, including Nicole Sealey, Malcolm Nance, and Tiya Miles, showcases not only the breadth of literary talent she attracts, but also the advocacy and activism she nurtures.

Tanya McKinnon, the principal agent of McKinnon Literary. (Credit: Andres Hernandez)

After graduating from Tufts University in 1989, McKinnon considered herself already a “little feminist” when she started working as a medical assistant and counselor at Preterm, a reproductive health clinic that provides abortions in Boston. She was drawn to the work because she realized she could be of service and do something that she felt would have a positive impact in the lives of women. But it was a job in which one had to be equipped to hold a lot of different feelings. There were protesters outside every day, which showed McKinnon a lot about how “fear tactics work, how guilt works, and just the relentless will to control women’s bodies.” As a counselor listening to the stories of the women who came in, McKinnon came to realize that the choices women were making for their own lives and the well-being of their families were critical. And even after she left that job, she continued to see herself as someone with a mission of being of service, even if it was in a role that was a little less intense on a daily basis.

And then came the long journey to agenting. Initially starting in editorial at South End Press in Boston, McKinnon honed her skills over the course of a year and learned what it takes for a manuscript to become a book. A curious mind, McKinnon left the publishing house to briefly dip back into academia, receiving an MA in cultural anthropology from the New School in New York City in 1996, but publishing kept calling to her. A friend had let McKinnon know about a position as a literary scout—representing foreign publishers and Hollywood producers and serving as their eyes and ears, alerting them to what was hot in the book market—and she worked in that capacity for a year. Still, the idea of agenting had always intrigued McKinnon, and she eventually made the jump in 1997 when a like-minded progressive in publishing, Mary Evans, offered her a spot at her eponymous agency, where McKinnon happily built her list for almost a decade before becoming a mother. While she loved agenting, McKinnon made the hard decision to step back to fully devote herself to raising a child with her husband. But the urge to nurture writers, academics, and journalists and bringing their ideas into the world crept back into her life, and in 2014, McKinnon Literary was born. A small but mighty agency consisting of four other colleagues, McKinnon Literary has represented New York Times best-sellers and award winners, its agents working with both first-time writers and established authors, all in pursuit of “narratives that leave us wiser and more human for having read them.”

McKinnon and I recently spoke about the ethos of McKinnon Literary, how publishing can be a form of activism; the different ways agents—and authors—can use comps, or comparable titles; and how the future of this industry, despite its many challenges, still holds many wonderful possibilities. McKinnon, who describes herself as “a profound realist with an optimistic bent,” stresses that if we don’t hold what can sometimes be “a seeming contradiction between the heaviness of right now: climate change, AI, authoritarianism” with a faith in humanity, then we’re done for. “We’re done,” she repeats. “I come from a people who have experienced some of the darkest moments of American history, and we have never lost the thread of our humanity, or faith, or hope.” In her life and in her role as an agent, McKinnon has braided those threads around a body of work in support of writers and activists alike.

How long did you work at Mary Evans?
I was there nine years, and I learned a fair amount. Michael Chabon won the Pulitzer while I was there. It was a good learning ground, and it was the two of us and an assistant. It was an intimate space, and she never tried to put brakes on me, which was nice. And particularly for a young woman of color in publishing. I think I was there a couple of months when I sold my first book. I believe I sold it for a quarter of a million dollars. And so then fairly quickly we were able to hire another assistant, and I became my own agent there. It was very nice of Mary to take a risk on a young woman of color and empower me.

You just needed that one yes to open the door for you to come through, because you had the skill set, you had the talent and the knowledge. After those nine years, was that when you struck out on your own, or was there something in between?
I would love to have this clear, seamless narrative. I took a very long maternity leave. I was an older mom, and we had our daughter and I realized that I really wanted to be there for her early years and that it was going to be my one opportunity. We tightened our belts. My husband and I don’t come from money, so it was a sacrifice. It wasn’t like I could just stay home. And I agented a little bit, but I wasn’t signing new authors. I have a couple of long-term faithful clients that have been with me for a very long time, since the beginning, and they stayed with me. And then when my daughter got to about fourth grade, I was like, I really want to come back. And it was my husband who said, “You should open your own agency.” I was afraid. And again, I think there are these narratives in which everyone has complete clarity, and it is a fait accompli, but I was frightened in the beginning. I was like, I don’t know what it’ll mean to open my own agency. I was frightened of failure, but I’m very lucky to be married to a good person. And he said, like the classic old best-seller title, “I think you should feel the fear and do it anyway.” And I said, “I’m not going to make very much money. And left to my own devices, I won’t be thinking about the bottom line; I’ll only be thinking about what I like politically and personally.”

So I began with my list. I was very fortunate: Robin Kelley has been a long-time client of mine, and he referred Michael Eric Dyson to me and said, “I think he could use someone who has the bandwidth to really focus on him.” I signed him, and we worked on his next book on Obama, which was a joyful experience. We sold it, and that did well and that led to a number of New York Times best-sellers. I think people started, maybe word-of-mouth, to know me in the space. I was talking to people, and it brought a number of academics to me, thought leaders. I really enjoy helping people shape their work. Particularly academics—having come out of graduate school, I understand where they come from.

I understand how they write, how they learn to write, and I enjoy the process of helping them think in a bigger way and to also see how something that might be originally quite tight for academia might loosen up a little for greater accessibility in the commercial market without dumbing itself down. I think sometimes there’s this tension between intellectual rigor and accessibility, but the price is that we have to dumb it down. And I never think that’s the case. I tell my clients, “If we have to dumb it down, we’ve made a mistake.” So I think that’s a particular kind of puzzle that I love to turn my mind to.

In the academic space, what excites you? What piques your interest to think that a subject matter can be loosened up, in your words, to a lay reader? Is it the type of topic or the type of person? What is it that speaks to you?
I think if it gives me a certain kind of immediate frisson when I hear about it, that it’s a moment in history that constitutes a mystery, where if you really look into it, you see that it has tentacles and it’s influencing a number of later events and that it’s sort of an inception point. I find that very interesting. I am obviously interested in women’s lives and the ways in which women have fought for power and influence. I find that particularly compelling. Obviously, the intersection of race and gender is compelling to me. I’m always looking for the moment that we missed but that really deserves recognition. And that could come in a number of ways in a book.

When you started, I feel like you already had this very strong ethos of what your agency is looking for. Do you believe that has changed in any way or evolved, from when you were an agency assistant to now?
Here’s one thing I’m going to say: I don’t think I’ve grown out of my politics. I still think I’m very much that politically minded creature that I was. I see the world in political terms. The imbricated way in which I perceive the world the most frequently is politically and psychoanalytically. And I think that I’ve seen sometimes, in people I’ve known, they’ve gotten a bit more jaded about their politics, or they sometimes say, “We have to get real now” and somehow be more grown-up or more realistic. It’s some of these code words for maybe conservatizing a little bit. And I am lucky in that I’m not particularly a materialist.

So I think I’m fortunate to continue to be able to afford my taste. I am thrilled when I sell a book to Beacon, New Press, Haymarket, every bit as thrilled as I am when I sell a book to PRH or Simon & Schuster or Macmillan. I’m as thrilled when I sell a book for $20,000 as I am if I sell a book for $800,000. I feel that when I take on a book, I’m passionate about what the book is about, and I want it to find a house and an editor who loves it and wants to see it through in the world. And obviously I’m aggressive because you have to be in this business and because I want my clients to get the best deal, but not every book is a million-dollar book. Some books are really served by the kinds of skills that a Haymarket has. I think being a good agent is being able to guide your client to the right place where the book has the greatest potential to stay in print, to reach its readership, and to have a long life.

I think longevity really is the name of the game, especially for an agent. When you encounter new authors, what is the first thing that pops for you in their e-mail, in their query to you?
Clarity. I think you can feel when a writer has possession of their subject matter, when they have real mastery over it, because they’ve done the due diligence of really thinking it through. They tend to have very clear thesis statements. They tend to, even if they haven’t achieved it quite yet in the right way—they actually do know what it is that they want to say. I have a client publishing in the spring, and he came to me with six or seven pages, and he sent them to me, and they were not right, but he knew what he wanted to do, and that came through to me. I had a meeting with him and said, “Hey, I think you want to do this, but this isn’t how you get there. You need to do this; it will get you there more efficaciously, more beautifully, more elegantly.”

And he said, “Oh, gosh, yes, it actually will.” And we signed together, and then we were able to work together, and that was a significant deal. That’s the thing, where it’s not that the material has to come to me in a perfect way, but there’s passion, there’s feeling in the writer behind it. I know that they really want to say this thing, and I can find it with them, and I can help them clarify it so that a publisher can see it in the same way that we do.

Do you think an author bio matters, or is it really clarity that will shine in an agent’s inbox?
Sometimes we have authors who don’t have a million followers. They can’t all have syndicated radio programs or top-tier podcasts; sometimes they’ve graduated from an MFA program, and they have two pieces they’ve managed to place. Sometimes they work at a small local newspaper. I do want to see a thoughtfulness in the bio, that they are saying their writing life is a serious component of their identity and they’re really working on it. But I don’t think any of us knows where the next beautiful mind might be coming from, and that’s part of the excitement of this business.